The Sweetest Perfection: Depeche Mode's Violator at 25
“I don’t understand what destiny’s planned, I’m starting to grasp what is in my own hands..." - Depeche Mode, “Clean” written by M.L. Gore
In discussing the career of British synthpop band Depeche Mode, truer words were never spoken, sung, or written. There was never any big plan for the band when they began life in Basildon, England in 1980. However, ten years later, they were certainly grasping success in their hands. They had built a loyal live following and had success in Europe with their albums, but with the arrival of 1990’s Violator, Depeche Mode tasted world domination. Violator turns 25 this week.
Like their previous album Music for the Masses, the title Violator was supposed to be a joke—a title one would find on a heavy metal album or a porno. Music for the Masses proved to be quite prescient—that tour culminated with a sold out show at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in California—but the success of that album paled in comparison to Violator. A preview of the frenzy that would surround Depeche Mode in 1990 came at their album signing in Los Angeles just prior to the album’s U.S. release. The band members—Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Alan Wilder, and Andy Fletcher—convened at Wherehouse Records and found thousands of fans waiting for them, some had even lined up days in advance. The band stayed for about an hour before the situation got out of hand and they had to leave. Though a full-scale riot didn’t break out, some people got hurt in the resulting melee and the cops had to break it all up. It was a hell of an announcement that Violator had arrived.
Violator transformed Depeche Mode from a cult postmodern/alternative/new wave, (choose your label), band to one that everyone knew. Even those who might not have necessarily been into “new wave” music probably owned Violator. The album was the culmination of Depeche Mode’s growth in the public consciousness, leading them to sell out stadiums all over the world on their accompanying World Violation Tour. Though they can still fill stadiums in Europe, they have mostly returned to being the biggest cult band in the world. Amazingly, they still pick up new listeners with each album they release and they have the staying power of Violator to thank for that. It made electronic music—a genre consistently derided by “proper” musicians and critics—cool, changing the musical landscape. Nowadays, you’ll find more of Depeche Mode’s tools of the trade—synthesizers, sampling, etc.—creeping into more songs than ever before. For better or worse, electronic music is here to stay.
However, the members of Depeche Mode would tell you—rightfully so—that all the electronics in the world can’t disguise a bad song, so it all starts there and Violator represents the band’s tightest, most-concentrated shot of great songs in one package—save any compilations, of course. The first three singles off the album are a triad of classics: “Personal Jesus,” “Enjoy The Silence,” and “Policy Of Truth.” If casual listeners have forgotten Depeche Mode over the years, these three songs will remind them how great an album Violator is. The fourth single, “World In My Eyes,” is not only a fantastic album-opener, but is arguably the band’s sexiest song in their catalog. The rest of the album is not throwaway by any stretch of the imagination, with each track worthy enough to be a single. The best part of all is that the songs still hold up today. You could play any one of the tracks off of Violator now and it would sound as fresh as it did 25 years ago.
The album was my gateway drug into the world of Depeche Mode and I’ve been addicted ever since. Depeche Mode has been my favorite band for 25 years and it’s all thanks to Violator. The album had some help from my friend Warren, who quickly introduced me to the live album 101, as well as a few other albums in their catalog, but Violator was the best. I couldn’t even count all the mix tapes I made in the wake of buying Violator and hunting down the maxi-single cassettes with all the remixes. Yes that’s right, when I first got Violator, I had it on cassette. This led me to initially short-change the two last songs on the album, “Blue Dress” and “Clean,” in favor of finishing off “Policy Of Truth” and flipping the cassette back over to start over with “World In My Eyes.” I corrected my ways since and now both songs are two of my all-time favorites.
That level of quality extended to the album’s B-sides: “Dangerous,” “Happiest Girl,” and “Sea Of Sin.” All these songs were strong enough to be added to the album, but that would have disrupted the perfect balance and length of the album. In this age of stuffing albums full of subpar songs in order to fill out a CD, Violator is perfectly economical—just long enough to fill up one side of a 90-minute cassette.
Another element that added to the album’s perfection was its simple, but iconic album cover by Anton Corbijn. The single red rose on a stark black background has come to define Depeche Mode and their music in a single image—beautiful, delicate, dark, but with some bite. Corbijn began working with the band in 1986 and steadily took on more and more of crafting Depeche Mode’s image. By Violator, he was doing the album art, single art, all the videos, and designing their stage setup for their tour. The videos became just as iconic as the album cover, with “Personal Jesus,” “Enjoy The Silence,” and “Policy Of Truth” all receiving heavy airplay on MTV. Corbijn also made videos for “World In My Eyes,” “Halo,” and “Clean,” collecting them on the video compilation Strange Too, a follow up to Strange, which collected the videos from Music for the Masses. “Enjoy The Silence,” with Dave Gahan dressed like a king and roaming the planet, is probably their most recognizable video, though the visit to the brothel in “Personal Jesus” is tough to forget. Though other projects have kept Corbijn too busy to totally control Depeche Mode’s visual output, he still did the album sleeve and concert DVD for their last tour.
Violator changed everything for Depeche Mode. It made them worldwide megastars and though the glow of that success has faded over the years, they still draw massive crowds whenever they tour. It is a fantastic album and Violator’s still-modern sound is a testament to its quality and staying power. On this, its 25th anniversary, take a listen to it and discover Depeche Mode all over again.